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Africa in Brazil: How Ilê Aiyê Brought Blackness to Salvador's Carnival

Salvador's carnival, once a white-only event, was reclaimed by black Brazilians looking to celebrate their African heritage.

Those unfamiliar with the Ilê Aiyê (pronounced e-lay ah-ay) group, might assume its members come from Nigeria or Benin. The headdresses the women wear could be found at a Nigerian wedding. The cloth of their costumes sport the bright colors typical of wax cloth. The music is driven by just drums. But few people in this group have ever visited Africa.


Ilê Aiyê was the first Afro-Bloco carnival group in Salvador and in the last 44 years, it has helped black people across Brazil to reclaim their African heritage in a positive way. Of the city's 3 million residents, more than 80 percent identify as black. Their heritage is a legacy of Brazil's transatlantic slave trade, which brought more than 2 million Africans to the coasts of Brazil.

Although Salvador, Brazil is a majority-black city, its mainstream carnival had evolved into an event for whites by the 1970s. Back then, as it is today, Salvador's carnival was dominated by blocos that followed moving sound systems—trio-electricos. White Brazilians danced to these trio-electricos while black Brazilians held a cord around them to prevent poor people from entering their space.

Image by Rosilda Cruz/ Secult BA

At the time, it was considered dangerous to create a carnival group that exalted blackness and only included blacks. The dictatorship always squashed any efforts by blacks to organize against racism. But this didn't stop a circle of black friends, who, while coming back from a day at the beach, decided to create a carnival group with just black people—Ilê Aiyê.

“We're helping black people build their self-esteem," said Vovô do Ilê, the leader and one of the founders of the Ilê Aiyê carnival group.

Vovô and 100 other friends created Ilê Aiyê in time for 1975's carnival. During that year, they dressed in red, yellow and white fabric and paraded throughout Salvador to the song of Que Bloco é Esse - What is this bloco? For the following year, the group chose a theme—the Tutsi people of Rwanda. Since then, Ilê Aiyê has honored more than 20 African and Caribbean countries during carnival. This year, the group will celebrate 100 years of Madiba: Nelson Mandela.

Ilê Aiyê was born in a house of the Candomblé Afro-Brazilian religion. The mother of Vovô, Mother Hilda, reigned as the Candomblé priestess of the Ilê Axé Jitolu candomblé house until her death in 2009. So the influence of the Afro-Brazilian religion on the cultural group is very strong. It can be heard in the rhythms of the drum section and the lyrics of the songs. Even the name Ilê Aiyê comes directly from Yoruba—the roots of Candomblé. Ilê Aiyê generally means the "Black World" by black Brazilians. To this day, the Ilê Aiyê has the most members of any Afro-Bloco who practice the Candomblé religion.

Image by Juliana Gabriela/ Turismo Bahia

In those early years, Ilê Aiyê fine-tuned its identity. That identity eventually came to define the genre of the Afro-Bloco: A Yoruba name exalting blackness. A large drum section providing the musical foundation; Songs whose lyrics promoted Brazil's African heritage; Fantasias made of a fabric highlighting the year's theme. In 1979 the Afro-Bloco fever spread to the north of Salvador. Black Brazilians in Itapuã created the Afro-Bloco Malê de Balê, which paid homage to the African Muslims who led the greatest revolt against slavery in Brazilian history. Blacks in the center of Salvador created Olodum, an Afro-Bloco that Michael Jackson made popular in his video "They Don't Care About Us." Today there are more than a dozen Afro-Blocos in Salvador and their music, dance and fashion are the foundation of Salvador's "black" carnival. Black communities in cities all over Brazil and the world have also created Afro-Blocos.


Image by Juliana Gabriela/ Turismo Bahia

White beauty has always been the standard in Brazil, so much that even today it's rare to see dark-skinned women fronting advertising campaigns or winning beauty pageants. From the beginning, Ilê Aiyê always promoted dark-skinned black women as beautiful, and divine. In 1979 Ilê Aiyê held it's first Beleza Negra beauty pageant to choose a Deusa de Ebano "Black Goddess" who would reign as the queen of the bloco.

"Ilê Aiyê is showing us our beauty and our importance," said Jessica Nascimento, 19, the winner of this year's Beleza Negra beauty pageant. "We don't even recognize this ourselves."

Image courtesy of Odú Comunicação.

This year the pageant celebrated its 39th edition with 16 women competing. In a program lasting four hours, contestants are judged on their representation of the year's theme and how well they dance. Nascimento will represent Ilê Aiyê during carnival and in concerts across Brazil and the world.

"We see black women being represented as a goddess," Nascimento said. "Black women aren't in these places where they are the protagonist. Ilê Aiyê brings a social and political conscious to the table in addition to the beauty."

The highlight of the beauty pageant is when each competitor dances the Black Goddess dance. In this dance, competitors show what they are feeling through the dance.

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Watch "How Ilê Aiyê Brought Blackness Back to Carnival" above.

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This Is What Rotimi's 'Walk With Me' EP Listening Party Looked Like

The Nigerian singer held an intimate listening party on the eve of the release of his new EP, 'Walk With Me,' at Brooklyn's Okay Space.

Walk With Me, Rotimi's new and highly anticipated EP, dropped Friday—giving us a seven-track peek into who the singer and actor truly is sonically.

The night before, the Nigerian-American crooner gathered over 100 tastemakers and day-one supporters to Brooklyn's Okay Space—the shared gallery space between Okayplayer and OkayAfrica—for an intimate listening party celebrating the release, as well as his music video for "Love Riddim" which also dropped this week.

The night was simply a vibe—folks enjoyed libations and bites from The Suya Guy, with sounds by DJ Tunez. Rotimi opened the gathering up with a thoughtful prayer, with the music video reveal to follow. The singer then walked the audience through each track from Walk With Me, opening up about the creative process of how each track came to life.

Following, Rotimi engaged in an even more in-depth Q+A session with OkayAfrica's arts and culture editor, Antoinette Isama, where he touched on his experience touring with Wizkid back in 2011, his thoughts on the continued rise in popularity afrobeats is having in mainstream music, his hopes for the future and more. Tunez then ran the EP back when the party ensued, as the project is full of tracks that are worthy of being on repeat.

Listen to Walk With Me below, and be sure to take a look at photos from the listening party by Nerdscarf Photography.

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CANNES, FRANCE - MAY 16: Director Ladj Ly and Almamy Kanoute attend the photocall for "Les Miserables" during the 72nd annual Cannes Film Festival on May 16, 2019 in Cannes, France. (Photo by Pascal Le Segretain/Getty Images)

How To Survive Cannes Film Festival As a Black Filmmaker

A film festival is intense by nature, but Cannes is a whirlwind.

Cannes Film Festival is one of the world's most prestigious gatherings bringing celebrities, filmmakers and actors claiming to celebrate the world's best film. Although the festival is way behind Sundance or the London Film Festival regarding diversity efforts, it remains the place to be if you're a filmmaker—especially a Black one.

I, myself, am a Black French filmmaker who was invited to Cannes as part of their scheme for young film lovers—3 Days in Cannes—open to anyone between the ages of 18 and 28. The scheme, which launched in 2018, requires young hopefuls to write a cover letter showing their passion for film. It ultimately gives young people the opportunity to discover the international selection of films showed at Cannes.

READ: Black Women Are the Future of French Cinema—When Will Cannes Catch Up?

Being in Cannes for the first time was a wonderful experience, but it can be tough to navigate as a Black filmmaker if you're not prepared for it. So, here are top tips.

1) Don't be a person of color—especially if you're Black (Just kidding. But still.)

Cannes is a beautiful, posh city in the south of France. It is part of the Provence Alpes Côte d'Azur, an administrative region where the far right party Rassemblement National (formally known as the National Front) hits record-breaking highs. Despite the fact that the festival is incredibly international, at times it can feel pretty racist, like a sunny, idyllic version of 1960s Alabama, where a party of more than one Black person gets routinely rejected from some clubs/bars/restaurants. On top of that, the staff and some of the security working at the festival can be incredibly aggressive and rude to you and in French. If you don't understand it, it's even more confusing.

To avoid it, try to stick to the official Cannes parties, or hang out in international hotels like the Miramar or the Radisson Blu Hotel—which are used to an international crowd. You can also stick to parties at the various country pavilions near the Film Market.

2) Stick to the African Pavilion

At the festival, most countries have their own pavilion. But because the festival believes Africa is a country, all 54 countries are gathered in one pavilion. This pavilion also includes the Caribbean, since Jamaica, as life would have it, is also an African country. In the African Pavilion, there was even talk on how to submit films if you're a filmmaker of Indian descent (despite the fact that India had its own pavilion).

You're not African? That's okay, no one cares. Pan-Africanism is still alive, I guess? Thankfully, out of the many pavilions, I did find the African Pavilion was the best one the most welcoming and whose schedule was the most open and clear. Because Cannes is such an exclusive festival, most of the parties and talks won't be communicated outside of those who are supposed to attend.

The African Pavilion, however, requires you to sign up to their newsletter. You then access their app where you can see the schedule, the talks to attend and the party they planned. The only downside is that they were understaffed, so some talks and events were cancelled last minute and with limited communication.

If you're a Black French filmmaker, speaking English is a must to get the most out of the pavilion. If you're an English-speaking filmmaker, try to make friends or meet people who speak French, as some of the talks/discussions might not have professional interpreters.

Also, go to the events organized by diversity in Cannes. Now, if you're a Black filmmaker who would rather not stay in the community for fear of being pigeonholed? Unless you're part of a talent scheme run by the festival...good luck getting others to support you.

3) Be ready to WAIT to see films and to party

On average, I waited 1 hour 40 minutes for each film I wanted to see in the official selection program. And I purposely chose not to see the famous ones like the Pedro Almodóvar or Quintin Tarantino's films. I also waited almost two hours to see a film from the Un certain regard selection and didn't get in—despite my pass. Now, Un certain regard has the most highly sought after films, even more so than the Competition, because they tend to select the best among indie international films. To get in for sure, you need a "Un certain regard" pass, so they need to invite you themselves. Even if you have a ticket at the counter, you might not get in unless you wait two hours (standing) or choose to attend the early screening or the late ones (and still, you should be ready to wait 1 hour for these).

You need a pass AND a ticket to see the films from the official selection and walk the red carpet up to the Grand Théatre Debussy. For the ACID, Director's fortnight, Semaine de la critique, and the Official selection's films not shown on the red carpet, you just need a pass—and to be ready to queue for at least 45 minutes.

I wouldn't recommend getting the Cannes cinephile pass as it has a low priority. I saw people waiting 2 hours to see a film and not getting in, while people with professional Black passes arriving 10 minutes before the screening walking past them. Because the Cannes festival is for professionals, they have, unfortunately, priority over members of the public.

Now, with the parties at Cannes, word on the street is that they are not as legendary as they used to be. Even if you get invited to one, you still need to wait an hour. It's not because they are over capacity, but rather they feel the need to pretend that they are. Unless you're a VVIP. And if you're one, why are you reading my article?

Anyway, despite not being as glamorous as they used to be, they remain so exclusive that if your name is not on the list, you might need to sell your first born to attend.

Thankfully, you can avoid it by being smart. When I arrived in Cannes, I was dead set on going to parties to network. Since almost all of them are invite only, I went to the parties at the pavilions, like the UK one, the American one (which costs 20 euros because Americans are always about their money) and the African Pavilion—that were kind enough to facilitate networking by introducing me to fellow filmmakers. God knows how talking to strangers and building new relationships can be difficult, and they made it easier.

4) Make friends with distributors or people working for the Mayor's office

The whole point of the festival is to sell films. Tickets are sparse for most people, so some badge holders wear their Sunday Best and stand outside the grand theater, holding signs asking for tickets. It makes sense that distributors are incredibly powerful, since they have the power to buy and sell films internationally. They are given way too many tickets that should be given to people waiting for hours outside.

So, if you make friends with distributors, they will always have a handful of spare tickets, even for the big ones that everyone wants to see. They also have tickets for the big parties as well. Press badge holders also have priority since they are responsible for a film good or bad media coverage. So they have a handful of tickets too.

People working for the Mayor's office also have tickets because they work closely together since the festival brings so much revenue to the city. Make friends with them, as well as film students and you'll get tickets. Don't know where to find them? Social media is your friend.

There is also another way to get tickets to films: the staff. For example, I couldn't get tickets to see Mati Diop's Atlantiques. I walked to the ticket counter and saw a Black woman with a great hairstyle. My instinct KNEW I had to tag along. I asked her if she needed help. She was looking for the same tickets. We asked someone at the ticket office if they could help. They said they had nothing. But one of the staff members saw us and said she could try to help us. She came back with two tickets and that's how I got to see the film. I got lucky and was cunning. So be nice with the staff, they can help.

5) Be ready for anything

A film festival is intense by nature, but Cannes is a whirlwind. Since you're spending so much time waiting and walking from venues to venues, you won't have time to eat unless you bring food you've made before hand. You're not allowed to eat inside the theaters and if you walk the red carpet, you food is thrown out beforehand. You can try buying food and drinks in the morning and finish it by the time you walk the red carpet. I'd advise buying it at a supermarket like the pricey Monoprix. Or the nearby McDonald's. It's cheap, warm, almost always open and a great way to socialize! Young filmmakers, as well as those from Britain and the States will come to McDonald's to eat since it's one of the places they know best. Why not strike up a convo there?

Also, don't forget your power bank. Your phone will get out of battery for sure, especially if you post content on social media.

Finally, despite its reputation, the festival is incredibly badly organized. You will be told that your badge is not allowed to watch films at other selections, or you would be given the wrong directions and will be lost in the croisette on your way to see an obscure film.

Chill, be ready to walk and use Google Maps. And enjoy!

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Julie Adenuga: "There Are Young Artists In Nigeria Who Are Changing the World"

In an exclusive interview, the Beats 1 radio presenter opens up about her Nigerian heritage, documenting Homecoming in Lagos, and London being an important hub for afro-fusion sounds.

Julie Adenuga sits at the intersection of two continents.

As an affable tastemaker who transforms banal interviews into engaging conversations with some of the most famous artists in the world, Julie is leading the global dialogue on new music from her daily radio show, which broadcasts to over 100 countries.

The North London native of Nigerian descent hails from a musical family, her brothers are artists Skepta and JME, and has risen from the underground as a self-taught presenter on former pirate radio station Rinse FM to being one of three lead DJ's with her Beats 1 show on Apple Music.

A champion of homegrown talent in the UK and across the African diaspora, Julie is a purveyor of the afro-fusion genre, as is evident in her recent Homecoming documentary, which captured the fresh innovators from the Lagos music scene, and her DON't @ ME club nights, which has featured Ghetts, Lady Leshurr and The Compozers as residents.

Chosen as one of OkayAfrica's 100 Women celebrating extraordinary women from Africa and the diaspora, we speak with the presenter and broadcaster on owning her Nigerian identity, the responsibility of spreading afrobeats and why London is a key location for the genre.

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